The Most Read Book in America

Jack Gladney is the chairman of the department of Hitler Studies, which he has founded and become a prominent figure, at a Midwestern college named College-on-the-Hill. Despite his position, he knows not a word of German. He has hidden it well from people, but exchange students and people from around the world including Germany will be attending his Hitler Studies seminar. He narrates about his problems:

The German tongue. Fleshy, warped, spit-spraying, purplish and cruel. One eventually had to confront it. Wasn’t Hitler’s own struggle to express himself in German the crucial subtext of his massive ranting autobiography, dictated in a fortress prison in the Bavarian hills? Grammar and syntax. The man may have felt himself imprisoned in more ways than one.

He has a wife named Babette who he describes:

Babette is tall and fairly ample; there is a girth and heft to her. Her hair is a fanatical blond mop, a particular lawny hue that used to be called dirty blonde. If she were a petite woman, the hair would be too cute, too mischievous and contrived. Size gives her tousled aspect a certain seriousness. Ample women do not plan such thing. They lack the guile for conspiracies of the body.

These two have a dysfunctional family of sons and daughters left over from their previous marriages. They raise their children “in the vicinity of a chemical dump site, in the path of air currents that carry industrial wastes capable of producing scalp degeneration, glorious sunsets”. Heinrich is only thirteen, but his hair is receding because of where they live. He also plays correspondence chess with a mass murderer.

With such a dysfunctional cast, it doesn’t seem like it was one of those ordinary books which people read for fun and pretended that they have read A Book. Maybe it could be something special. A book of the generation. Various critics, writers, and readers have fallen in love with the novel from the very start. Richard Powers, a National Book Award writer, writes in his introduction “The Whiteness of the Noise”:

I can think of few books written in my lifetime that have received such quick and wide acclaim while going on to exercise so deep an influence for decades thereafter. I can think of even fewer books more likely to remain essential guides to life in the Information Age, another quarter century on.

He then compares the novel to the barn scene in the ending of chapter 3. Jack and Murray decide to take a trip to “THE MOST PHOTOGRAPHED BARN IN AMERICA”. They see tourists take pictures with their cameras and ponder in silence. And Murray finally spoke up, “No one sees the barn.” After the cameramen leave, he continues:

“We’re not here to capture an image, we’re here to maintain one. Every photograph reinforces the aura. Can you feel it, Jack? An accumulation of nameless energies.

“Being here is a kind of spiritual surrender. We see only what others see. The thousands who were here in the past, those who will come in the future. We’ve agreed to be part of a collective perception. This literally colors our vision. A religious experience in a way, like tourism.

“They are taking pictures of taking pictures.

“What was the barn like before it was photographed? What did it look like, how was it different from other barns, how was it similar to other barns? We can’t answer these questions because we’ve read the signs, seen the people snapping the pictures. We can’t get outside the aura. We’re part of the aura. We’re here, we’re now.”

This is the one moment everyone remembers in the book without fail. Nobody in their right mind would suggest that this is not at all how we think as a collective. It is pitch-perfect. And DeLillo seems aware this novel, White Noise, is that barn.

And this is where the novel begins to fall apart. Because DeLillo’s ironic treatment of the ironies of reality could ironically be its demise. White Noise isn’t a satire exploring how suburban Americans live: it lampoons them and then nudges the reader who may have empathized with Jack’s way of living with its shoulder, saying “Do you get it, yeah, do you get it?”.

White Noise is a jokester that laughs at its own jokes and nods at its off-beat philosophical tangents. It also shares a certain trait that all bad jokesters have: it has one joke and it is this: Everything is artificial. For example, the ways characters talk are indistinguishable from each other:

[Jack says,] “Baba, I am the one in this family who is obsessed by death. I have always been the one.”
“You never said.”
“To protect you from worry. To keep you animated, vital and happy. You are the happy one. I am the doomed fool. That’s what I can’t forgive you for. Telling me you’re not the woman I believed you were. I’m hurt, I’m devastated.”
“I always thought of you as someone who might muse on death. You might take walks and muse. But all those times we talked about who will die first, you never said you were afraid.”
“The same goes for you. ‘As soon as the kids are grown.’ You made it sound like a trip to Spain.”
“I do want to die first,” she said, “but that doesn’t mean I’m not afraid. I’m terribly afraid. I’m afraid all the time.”
“I’ve been afraid for more than half my life.”
“What do you want me to say? Your fear is older and wiser than mine?”
“I wake up sweating. I break out in killer sweats.”
“I chew gum because my throat constricts.”
“I have no body. I’m only a mind or a self, alone in a vast space.”
“I seize up,” she said.
“I’m too weak to move. I lack all sense of resolve, determination.”
“I thought about my mother dying. Then she died.”
“I think about everyone dying. Not just myself. I lapse into terrible reveries.”
“I felt so guilty. I thought her death was connected to my thinking about it. I feel the same way about my own death. The more I think about it, the sooner it will happen.”
“How strange it is. We have these deep terrible lingering fears about ourselves and the people we love. Yet we walk around, talk to people, eat and drink. We manage to function. The feelings are deep and real. Shouldn’t they paralyze us? How is it we can survive them, at least for a while? We drive a car, we teach a class. How is it no one sees how deeply afraid we were, last night, this morning? Is it something we all hide from each other, by mutual consent? Or do we share the same secret without knowing it? Wear the same disguise.”
“What if death is nothing but sound?”
“Electrical noise.”
“You hear it forever. Sound all around. How awful.”
“Uniform, white.”

And the dialog goes on and on. Without the dialog tags, following who is speaking is almost impossible. This style of dialog actually appears for a good chunk for the novel, so I do not feel sorry for quoting a lot. It is in fact what you read from beginning to end.

The dialog is obviously intentional, but then can we say does it make good reading? Not really, but it could have been the point. That death is practically white noise, an ironical joke. That “this is the nature of plots… we edge nearer death every time we plot.”

Which then brings up another point: this novel is heavy-handed. It is as if DeLillo assumes the reader doesn’t realize that this novel is about the fear of death, so he puts various references to death including The Egyptian Book of the Dead and discussions (more like boring philosophical monologues) on the struggle to live a meaningful life. There is nothing like the barn scene whatsoever. Only mind-numbing dialog and narration on anything related to death. Jack, in fact, mentions that he always notes the age of the deceased in obituaries. Just in case you didn’t know the novel was about the fear of death.

Hammering the theme down in not at all subtle ways seems like a bizarre choice DeLillo has made when he seems motivated to go full irony on the whole book. Could it suggest that death is a joke? Bt this point, you could say who the hell cares. Everything is ironic. Nothing is serious. That’s the joke. Artificiality is the joke. Haha, I am not laughing. Yet, everyone is laughing at the jokes and pondering about the consequences of those jokes.

But it is not like White Noise is entirely bad. When DeLillo actually narrates with serious intent, he has the ability to compress a lot of information into a few pages. The first chapter is only two pages, but manages to describe a semblance of humanity at its most cultish behavior: “[the students] are a collection of the like-minded and the spiritually akin, a people, a nation.” Jack then proceeds to walk down the hill and DeLillo maps out the whole town in one paragraph.

Moments like these do make you wonder if the novel could have benefitted from actual narration instead of dull discourses on death. In fact, when the narration approaches the subject of death, it has more of an impact than the endless dialogs:

Who will die first? She says she want to die first because she would feel unbearably lonely and sad without me, especially if the children were grown and living elsewhere. She is adamant about this. She sincerely wants to precede me. She discusses the subject with such argumentative force that it’s obvious she thinks we have a choice in the matter. She also thinks nothing can happen to us as long as there are dependent children in the house. The kids are a guarantee of our relative longevity. We’re safe as long as they’re around. But once they get big and scatter, she wants to be the first to go. She sounds almost eager. She is afraid I will die unexpectedly, sneakily, slipping away in the night. It isn’t shat she doesn’t cherish life; it’s being left alone that frightens her. The emptiness, the sense of cosmic darkness.

This passage is interesting because it’s in the middle of a dialog. DeLillo has spared his readers in chapter 20 some boring dialog and gives us an actually decent summary of what transpired. It is more lucid and understandable. This is one of those cases where telling is better than showing.

But not all narration are like this. The ones critics and readers seem to love the most are a bit like the scene where Jack looks over his children sleeping:

A random tumble of heads and dangled limbs. In those soft warm faces was a quality of trust so absolute and pure that I did not want to think that it might be misplaced. There must be something, somewhere, large and grand and redoubtable enough to justify this shining reliance and implicit belief. A feeling of desperate piety swept over me. It was cosmic in nature, full of yearnings and reachings. It spoke of vast distances, awesome but subtle forces. These sleeping children were like figures in an ad for the Rosicrucians, drawing a powerful beam of light from somewhere off the page.

Later, Steffie, one of the sleeping children, says in her sleep “Toyota Celica”. Jack falls into a reverie: “The utterance was beautiful and mysterious, gold-shot with looming wonder. It was like the name of an ancient power in the sky, tablet-carved in cuneiform…”

Does anyone really think like this? It is so verbose and tacky it doesn’t read well when read aloud. There are worse scenes with these types of internal narration like this; Jack will mention brand names, death, and in case you forget death. But that’s the joke: everything is artificial. Silly. Even the most tender moment can be artificial because of how society works. Hahaha.

This style of narration is what attracts readers and critics the most. But Delillo’s writing style is nothing new. You do not have to look far into the history of science fiction books to find this “erratic” style of writing. William Gibson’s writing in Neuromancer, the novel that defined cyberpunk, is a far more polished version:

Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts… A graphic representation of data abstracted from banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding…

But writers and critics seem to harp on about how radical DeLillo’s attempts are. In the introduction by Richard Powers:

The prose swells with weird, discontinuous wormholes of thought, chanted trademark trinities, exquisite abandoned corpses, sudden cut-ins, floating particles of voice, whatever comes after free indirect discourse, chains of causality and cross-purposed connection with random bits elided or dropped or inattention deficit articulates a little death.

It is as if Powers has ignored the existence of cyberpunk! And even if you dislike Neuromancer and other Gibson novels, at least you never feel like everything is treated oh-so-ironically.

So where have we gone wrong in postmodernism? It was supposed to be the new Dada, challenging the modernist writings with its surrealistic, subjective, and reactionary take on how we view reality. You can’t go around bookstores seeing the names of David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Franzen, and Don DeLillo. They are touted as the writers who have changed the way we see America. They have predicted the future of America. They write the way we think.

But have they? Have we evolved (or devolved) into a culture that laughs at itself because of the same joke? We cannot escape from the fact that we are those tourists who are photographing the barn: we are just taking pictures of taking pictures. And we seem to be like Murray’s students in his health class who want to reaffirm that, yes, drinking wine on an empty stomach is bad. We need reconfirmation on our own observations. That is one of the reasons why we read.

However, I do not think that is something to be made fun of and I personally find it ironic that readers and critics agree with the stupid as hell message when this book as a whole can be applied to that barn. Readers read the readings of this book from various critics and other friends. Is that an thing to be made fun of through irony? DeLillo seems to suggest so. But obviously, we take pictures of the barn not because we are mindless tourists but because we think the barn has some sort of significance. It is our photographs, our combined interpretations that add meaning to the barn.

And so I will add my own photograph to the album of photos of this barn called White Noise: a very unflattering review by a disappointed reader.

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